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  • La Nativité et le temps de Noël, XVIIe-XXe siècle
  • Steven Reinhardt
La Nativité et le temps de Noël, XVIIe-XXe siècle. Edited by Régis Bertrand. (Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'Université de Provence. 2003. Pp. 254. €24,00 paperback.)

The two-thousandth anniversary of the date traditionally celebrated as the birth of Jesus offered the opportunity for European scholars from a variety of disciplines to gather in Aix-en-Provence to examine the Nativity and Christmastide in the modern and contemporary periods. The sixteen papers collected in this volume introduced by Régis Bertrand are organized around three major themes: the spiritual expansion of devotion to the birth and childhood of Jesus, particularly after the Council of Trent; the ways in which these events and personages were depicted in statuettes, pictorial representations, and theatrical presentations; and the variety of traditions (both Christian and pagan) that have marked the celebration of the Nativity across Europe until the present.

The feast of the Nativity appeared in the course of the fourth century when the Church in the West began to celebrate the "birthday of Jesus" on December 25 while the Church in the East did so on January 6. Despite the fact that ancient sources favored July 25 as the more accurate date, the two feasts—which were initially undifferentiated in content—gradually became distinct as Christmas and the Epiphany. Evidently the church fathers preferred the former dates because they supplanted pagan feasts already held at the time of year. Twelfth-century monastic reforms introduced into the celebration of the Nativity a new emotional sensibility that focused on the vulnerability and poverty of Jesus as an infant. Francis of Assisi was especially important in accentuating the dual nature of Jesus and hence his accessibility to humans whose suffering he had shared. The representation of the Nativity as a crèche including realistic and picturesque figures also helped spread the new devotion beyond the clerical world and contributed to the formation of a more [End Page 147] emotional "religion of the heart." Scholars consider this innovation as crucial to Catholicism in the early 1500s because it stressed the humanity of Jesus in contradistinction to the severe and vengeful God portrayed by Luther.

The initial essays examine the early spread of devotion to the Holy Family and note that Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century already accorded a critical role to the contemplation of Jesus' incarnation, birth, and childhood during the first three days of his Spiritual Exercises. These scholars emphasize, however, the decisive role of Teresa of Avila, whose reformed convents of Discalced Carmelites extended devotion to the Infant Jesus throughout early modern Europe. Silvano Giordano's examination of the Carmelite friars of Prague, for example, shows how this devotion expanded beyond the city to other religious houses in Central Europe during the eighteenth century. In the last decades of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cult of the Infant of Prague spread rapidly among the faithful, assisted in large part by the use of molded plaster and metal to make statuettes affordable for every home. The second group of essays concentrates on the evolving iconography that made representations of the Nativity, Infant Jesus, and Holy Family emotionally and visually appealing and contributed to the strong Marian piety of the nineteenth century. Theatrical presentations of the Nativity appeared in the eighteenth century and have remained popular to this day. But scholarly analysis of Christmas plays staged from Provence to Poland suggests that their religious message was gradually diluted as they increasingly mirrored the growing trend toward more intimate family celebrations.

Just as profane figures still stand alongside sacred personages in today's Nativity scenes, non-Christian (or pagan) elements have always been present in the celebration of Christmas. The third group of papers focuses on the various ways that religious authorities over the centuries have confronted and compromised with the inventive practices and evolving expectations of their flocks to arrive at a syncretic set of rituals and gestures that they still considered more or less "orthodox." In an insightful and prophetic selection, Jacqueline Lalouette describes how fin-de...


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pp. 147-149
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